It was 8:30 p.m. on Thursday when we strode up to The Zombie Shop and caught a glimpse of something we'd never witnessed before: unlucky punks being turned away at the door of a warehouse show. It's true, the place we always assumed had an official capacity of “however many people we can cram through the doors” was already sold-out beyond belief. We feel for those shunned dudes in denim jackets — they missed one hell of a birthday party.
When Nashville's Dead head deadhead Ben Todd announced that bands would start precisely at 8:30 p.m., we rightly assumed that it wasn't just another show promoter trick to get us inside and drinking. With six bands — including headliners Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees — on the birthday bill, starting on time wasn't just good sense, it was a necessity. Good thing we went with that gut feeling, because Gnarwhal started almost immediately after we got strapped with a wristband.
We can't quite put our finger on why, but Gnarwhal sounds like The Muse (the departed venue, not the British band). Or, at least, Gnarwhal sounds like the music we were listening to when we were going to The Muse. Highly technical and ferociously hardcore, the duo wavered between screaming emo-core-style breakdowns and finger-tapping, twitchy math rock. Gnarwhal is progressive as hell and damn proud of it. As much as we've moved past that phase in our lives, we couldn't help but feel kinda nostalgic toward this band we've only seldom seen in the past. That's a weird feeling.
After taking advantage of the beer line momentarily being shorter than the merch line — in Nashville! — we wandered the floor and found ourselves surrounded by the strangest hodgepodge of people we've ever seen at a show. People who had clearly just left work were intermingled with the Rat Patrol (the local freak-bike gang acting as security for the night), with the olds, the babies, record collectors, burly psych rock fans, waifish punk rock chicks, local sceneters, rock-scene celebs and even a handful of moms wandering in between. Nashville's Dead has some kind of a reach that we've never noticed before.
Before long, D. Watusi took to the stage. Technically speaking, this was also their album release party — Thee Oh Sees may be the main draw, but it's the Watoos' name on the cake. But you wouldn't know it from their show onstage. We've seen D. Watusi play dozens of times at this point and this was... a D. Watusi show. Tight as always, the poster children of Nashville's Dead rocketed through a set of tunes off their newly released debut LP, Dark Party — which, by the way, is a surprisingly dynamic and diverse debut effort. Dylan Watson's nasal wails are still bratty, which suits the blues-rock-inspired, organ-tinged garage rock that has become so familiar. We like D. Watusi, and now that they've released a record, we hope to see them push outward a little from their comfortable niche.
Useless Eaters were up next, sporting a lineup that included Diarrhea Planet's Casey Weissbuch on drums. Seth Sutton has a vicious punk sneer that amps up hard live. While the tunes on Daily Commute sound closer to Wire than Dead Kennedys, Sutton comes off like he's barely being held back by the bounds of the stage. Furious and unmistakably punk, Useless Eaters blew the Memphis punk chunk of the show wide open. But it wasn't the in-your-face punk anthems that intrigued us — it was the weird, slowed-down tune toward the end of the set. We didn't catch the name of the song, but Sutton and the Eaters played something more akin to Television-meets-Hot Water Music that totally ripped. More of that, please.
As the night continued to wear on, we started to feel the weight of the (perhaps overly) expansive lineup hard. Ex-Cult (formerly Sex Cult) brought their Black Flag-inspired punk rockery onstage around 11, finally drawing us nearer to the main event. We dug Ex Cult and the little slice of Goner Records they imparted to us, even if they were the only obstacle between us and Thee Oh Sees. We witnessed some truly acrobatic crowd-surfing moves — flips and dips and pirouettes above our heads — and watched as the Rat Patrol calmly and coolly escorted a couple of roughhousers from pit.
We drifted around out back for a bit, still somehow astonished that this, the biggest crowd we've seen at The Zombie Shop yet, wasn't being broken up by the fuzz, until somewhere past midnight, San Francisco's stellar Thee Oh Sees mounted the stage. The crowd poured back into the warehouse, and we clumsily found our way into fray — we scaled plywood and hopped scooters in hopes of gaining a decent vantage. Speaker stacks swayed, the sweaty crowd bulged and bobbed, and frontman John Dwyer and his crew ripped mercilessly through all of our faces and torsos with their throbbing West Coast psych rock. We've seen Thee Oh Sees in Miami, at SXSW and on a goddamn cruise ship, but this warehouse explosion was a sight to behold. They're unfortunately no longer touring with the double-drummer lineup we liked so much, but Dwyer did call Ty Segall drummer Emily Rose onstage to double up on some floor tom grooves in their second-to-last song.
By 2 a.m., the crowd had thinned somewhat — still not enough to make the warehouse feel anything less than full, but at least enough for comfort — and that's when Segall launched his set of redlining, grungy psychedelia. While Segall embraces that groovy, lo-fi, throwback aesthetic that's so popular among the San Fran and Nashy's Dead rock 'n' roll sets, he does so with genuinely good songs — strong, singular vocal melodies embedded in fuzzy sounds and a wild delivery. Standing on tables and bar stools in the back, sleepy members of the rock scene stuck it out, swaying and bobbing along as a committed semicircle near the stage throbbed and bounced. Ty even crowd-surfed at 2:15 a.m., God bless him. But six hours in a crowded Zombie Shop is about as exhausting as ... shit, six hours in a crowded Zombie Shop. So that's where we left it — slackers in the back shining their laser pointers at people's asses, committed Ty fans bleary-eyed but still pumping their fists. Happy birthday, Nashville's Dead. You made us about four hours late to work today, and it was worth it.